It sounds like the plot device of a techno-thriller or spy novel. In 2016 and 2017, 24 diplomats in Cuba reported hearing strange noises. Later, they showed symptoms of neurological damage similar to the effects of a concussion.
“Following exposure, patients experienced cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction, along with auditory symptoms, sleep abnormalities, and headache,” one medical report states.
And then something similar happened again, half a world away. In late May, a State Department employee in Guangzhou, China reported “abnormal sensations of sound and pressure” that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said are “very similar” and “entirely consistent” with what happened in Havana. More Americans are being .
Even now, though, real answers about this mystery weapon remain hard to come by.
The Long Road to Nowhere
The investigators from the State Department’s medical unit, FBI agents, and top notch academic epidemiologists have all looked into the problem. The latest effort is the Health Incidents Response Task Force that the State Department announced this week. The task force “includes interagency partners such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice, Defense and Energy, as well as other members of the foreign affairs community,” State Department spokesperson Nicole Thompson told Seniorhelpline via email.
The entity seems to be more of a trip line to detect future attacks than a concerted effort to find the culprits behind the Cuban and Chinese incidents. The task force’s stated mandate is to serve as “the coordinating body for … identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members, investigation and risk mitigation, messaging, and diplomatic outreach.” In other words, finding future victims and protecting staff.
There are two reasons State is paranoid about missing future attacks. For one thing, the attack in China has led to real fear of either a wider plot by a foreign power (many say Russia) or the rise of copycats who see a way to hurt and terrorize U.S. diplomats with impunity.
The other reason is political. State Department officials took a bi-partisan beating during Congressional hearings regarding their reactions to the attacks. “The failure of leadership by the department in that post, the sluggish reaction to the initial reports of afflicted personnel, the aloof response of the medical team at the State Department, silence from diplomatic security to the rest of the department is simply staggering,” Sen. Robert Menendez fumed in January. (Because the attacks occurred under both Obama and Trump, critics of all political persuasions, especially those who disapprove of the détente with Cuba, have room to maneuver.)
“All government personnel who travel to Havana on official duty now receive a detailed medical briefing,” Charles Rosenfarb, medical director in State’s Bureau of Medical Services, testified. “And they are encouraged to undergo pre-deployment screening including baseline audiograms and neurocognitive testing.”
Stumped, and Stumped Again
It took a while for America to even identify the first attacks in Cuba in September 2016. “It was only until late August when there was another round of attacks that it became apparent to us that we should begin the process of looking at an accountability review board,” says Francisco Palmieri, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “Throughout this process, there's been a lot of information that we knew or at times was then later contradicted.”
Once the Embassy in Cuba saw the pattern in sound and symptoms, the U.S. tried to catch the perps in the act. “Among other things, the Embassy deployed recording devices in staff residences in an effort to better identify or capture the possible source behind the threat, as many victims had associated the attacks with an acoustic event,” Todd Brown, diplomatic security assistant director for international programs, told Congress.
Any sounds they captured did not crack the case. But the on-scene investigators are not alone in failing to determine a cause. Epidemiologists studying the mystery released a report late last month that also came up empty.
The medical investigators were able to confirm the patients’ hearing damage is real, most still suffer from their symptoms linked to the attack, and any injuries did not come from earlier trauma. However, it’s not clear how much the victims knew about each other’s symptoms (like sleeplessness), and sharing such knowledge can cloud a medical investigation.
The epidemiological work, in the Journal of American Medical Association, said the mystery “remains elusive” but raises “concern about a new mechanism for possible acquired brain injury from an exposure of unknown origin.”
The main hope of finding what happened, and who did it, will come from the FBI. In May 2017, the Bureau opened a case, and the State Department says a team of agents “has since visited Havana several times and met with Cuban officials. The FBI's investigation has interviewed victims and conducted surveys of the residences and hotel rooms.”
In late April, Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the FBI “has been able to rule out several theories in terms of the technology that was used, and I think there will come a time when we will know a little more.”
In the meantime, the U.S. facilities in Havana are running on a skeleton crew after the majority of diplomats there were evacuated, and multiple people have been sent home from the consulate in Guangzhou, China. If the intent of the perpetrators is to throw a monkey wrench in U.S. foreign policy and get away with it, so far that mission has been accomplished.